The Language of Belonging

The need to belong, and be part of an “in” group, is something every person has felt. This longing becomes complicated when the power dynamics of empires and social hierarchies come into play. The relationship between former colonizers and the formerly colonized during the 20th century demonstrates this nuances and difficulties of this desire.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), follows the experiences of a young houseboy adjusting to University life after leaving a rural village, his master’s lover who becomes a sociology lecturer at the University of Nsukka, and her twin sister’s lover, an English writer who moves to Nigeria to learn about Igbo-Ukwu art. Throughout the chapters that center on Richard, the Englishman living and writing at the University of Nsukka, the narrator emphasizes the tension between him and Major Madu Madu, a close friend of his lover, Kainene. The tension between Richard and Madu finds equilibrium as the two battle over their opposing identities.

During their conversation on whether or not a second coup is probable at Kainene’s parents’ home in Lagos, the two men engage in a linguistic battle of sorts. Richard responds to Major Madu’s denial by saying: “I went to Zaria last week, and it seemed that all everybody was saying was second coup, second coup. Even radio Kaduna and the New Nigerian” (Adichie, 172). It is important to note that Richard said this in Igbo, to which Major Madu responded: “What doe the press know, really?” in English (Adichie 172). Richard believes that Madu responds to his Igbo in English in order to force the conversation back into English (Adichie, 172). This choice in dialogue, happening across languages, highlights a social interaction that places Madu firmly within the “in” group and Richard firmly outside of it. This shift, in which Madu refuses to engage in his own language with the foreigner—who is able to move to Nigeria as a result of his country’s conquest and destruction of the region—forces Richard to revert to the language of a colonizer.

The allusions in this passage to the media also underline the tension between the men. Richard is an academic, who believes in ideological debate and the importance of information. By mentioning “radio Kaduna” and “the New Nigerian,” Richard is presenting his sources. He makes an argument based on media-supported reports and statements. These specific sources also demonstrate Richard’s desire to integrate fully into Nigeria and Igbo culture, because he is using local sources, instead of the “Colonies Magazine” which offered his first look into Igbo art and culture. Madu, on the other hand, dismisses the media due to his position in the army. He knows that there is information that the press does not know, and understands that the press is looking for stories and therefore capitalizing on the tension that he claims has always been present.

This scene is punctuated with a letter from Richard’s cousin, following the outbreak of the second coup. The passage begins with: “Is “going native” still used? I always knew you would!” (Adichie 172). The narrator makes note that “Martin had… that superior smile of people who were born to belong and excel” (Adichie, 173). This passage highlights the condescension of the British towards the Igbo in Nigeria, but also establishes that Martin—the image of the British “in” group—does not believe that Richard ever belonged to the English as it was. Therefore the writer navigates his interactions with Madu with the understanding that his own nationality does not uphold his English-ness.

 

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Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half of a Yellow Sun. New York: Anchor Books, Random House, Inc, 2006.

One thought on “The Language of Belonging

  1. Your observations of language, cultural assimilation, and race relations are accurate and backed with adequate examples from the novel. I also noticed the importance of language, which is a prominent theme throughout the novel, such as how Ugwu judges people based off their ability of speaking English, a language he considers proper and desirable. Language is also arguably the most important aspect to learn and understand to become integrated into a culture because by being able to communicate with a certain group of people, you can gain access to knowledge, feelings of familiarity, etc. Therefore, Madu refuses to speak to Richard in Igbo as he does not want an Englishman to become a part of his culture. It’s also worth noting how Richard wants to be not entirely English since he states that he wants his family back home in England to see him as being “browner and happier” (Adichie 173). Though Richard is referring to his skin being tanned, it’s not a coincidence, as dark skin is associated with Africans.

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